My Take on the News

In Uganda, and Under Investigation

If Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu thought that he would have a reprieve from his troubles this past week, he was mistaken once again. Netanyahu set out on a trip to Africa, where he planned to visit several countries in order to work on renewing their ties with Israel. One of those countries was Uganda, where the Israeli hostages were held at Entebbe exactly 40 years ago. It has been four decades since the rescue operation that shocked the entire world and liberated the hostages – the operation during which the commander, Yoni Netanyahu, was killed in action. Binyomin Netanyahu, Yoni’s brother, who asserts that he thinks of Yoni every day, used his visit to Uganda to hold a ceremony marking 40 years since the rescue and his brother’s death. In contrast to the reports circulated in the media, the ceremony did not take place in the old airport terminal where the hostages were held. That terminal was destroyed long ago. Instead, the event was held in Uganda’s new terminal.

So Netanyahu thought that he would enjoy a few days of positive publicity on his trip abroad, a journey that has cost the Israeli taxpayer quite a large sum of money. In the interim, though, it was announced that he has become the subject of a new police investigation. The exact allegations are still unclear. All that is known is that Netanyahu is being investigated for some sort of financial wrongdoing associated with donations that he received.

Netanyahu was angered by the timing of the announcement, and he insists that it is part of the endless campaign of harassment against him. The problem is that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who decided to launch the investigation, served as the secretary of the cabinet until his recent appointment, and is considered one of the closest individuals to Netanyahu and his wife.

The Death of an Icon

Elie Wiesel passed away in New York, and his funeral took place at the shul in Manhattan where Wiesel davened in recent years. The frum world’s attitude toward Wiesel has been ambivalent. On the one hand, he was a Holocaust survivor, perhaps even the most famous survivor alongside Rav Yisroel Meir Lau. On the other hand, Wiesel spoke too often about the damage his faith suffered in Auschwitz. In the Knesset, a special discussion was held in his memory.

Five years ago, Wiesel visited the home of the Belzer Rebbe and told the Rebbe about his childhood, recalling how he had seen Rav Aharon of Belz in Budapest. He added that his father had been a Vizhnitzer chossid, and he spent a long time singing the Vizhnitzer niggunim that he remembered from his childhood.

Wiesel also commented that he did not know why Hashem had chosen for him to survive the war; he was uncertain what his mission in the world was now. “I am still trying to figure out the reason I was saved during the Holocaust,” he said. “What else is a Jew like me supposed to accomplish in the world for the Jewish people?”

Another man in the room remarked to the Belzer Rebbe that Wiesel was considered a good friend of the presidents of America, and that President Obama was one of his admirers and had even mentioned Wiesel in a recent speech. Wiesel responded, “Do I need the president of America to mention my name? What I need is for someone to mention my name to the Rebbe.”

The Relentless Reform Movement

We have all been mourning the tragic murder of Rav Michoel Mark Hy”d. During the shivah, his family was visited by many public figures: Rav Yitzchak Yosef, the Rishon LeTzion; Avigdor Lieberman, the Minister of Defense; and even Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad, who was Rav Mark’s cousin. The Mark family was also visited by the parents of young Hallel Yaffa Ariel Hy”d, who was murdered not long before in her home in Kiryat Arba.

Of course, the Kosel controversy has remained at the top of the public agenda. Every day, a new chapter is added to the ongoing saga. The Reform movement has not given the matter a moment’s rest. They are becoming more sophisticated in their efforts, and they are demanding unequivocal recognition. Two weeks ago, the leaders of the chareidi parties met with Prime Minister Netanyahu to inform him of the principles that we consider nonnegotiable. The problem, of course, is that the Supreme Court is not subject to the prime minister’s authority. But that subject is worthy of an entire article in its own right.

We did have a bit of relief in one sense, when the Ministry of Justice leaked the news that the criminal investigation against Aryeh Deri, in all likelihood, is going to be closed. Nothing is certain until the case is officially closed, but it was still pleasant news to hear. Deri deserves to be cleared of all suspicion.

Parenthetically, the Ministry of the Negev and Galil, which is under Deri’s aegis, has begun planning to allocate large amounts of funding to any summer camps that are organized in the Galil area this summer. Do not be surprised if you soon learn that dozens of annual summer camp programs are moved to the Galil, which will entitle them to copious government funding…

But let us move on to small smaller items from this past week.

Secrets in the State Archives

Just two weeks ago, the attention of the Israeli media was completely fixated on the ongoing scandal surrounding the Yemenite children who disappeared decades ago, and the much maligned decision to leave all the relevant documents sealed in the State Archives until the year 2071. Whoever made that decision apparently thought that the State of Israel in 2016 was still like the infant state of the Mapai years, when such a decision could be made with impunity. But this time, the Knesset was in an uproar, the Minister of Justice announced that she would not accept the decision, the Knesset Interior Committee was the scene of a highly emotional debate punctuated by the screams of Yemenite citizens, and the representatives of various organizations dealing with the subject held a flurry of meetings with the political parties in the Knesset. The clamor for an end to the secrecy reached its peak when the prime minister himself announced that he supported the demand to release all the documents. The government even appointed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, whose mother immigrated to the country from Yemen, to serve as the coordinator of the efforts on this subject.

Will a miracle actually happen this time? Will the documents finally be released? More importantly, will publicizing the documents actually lead to calm? Will the collective anger over the sins of the past finally subside? In fact, we have no way of knowing whether those documents will shed light on the truth at all. What information, after all, is contained in the many sealed files in the State Archives?

I looked into the matter, and I learned that the archives contain 3,500 files, with a total of about 1.5 million pages. The officials at the archives believe that anyone who is hoping to learn more about the truth will be disappointed by these documents. The files contain information collected by three investigative commissions: the Bahalul-Minkowski Committee, which was established in 1967; the Shalgi Committee, which operated in 1988; and the official inquiry commission led by Justice Kedmi, which operated in the year 1995. All three commissions arrived at the conclusion that the children who were supposedly abducted had indeed passed away. While there is no evidence of several dozen of the deaths in question, there is also no evidence that those children were abducted. Nevertheless, even now that all three commissions have completed their respective investigations, many questions have been left unanswered.

At the same time, a number of organizations that have dealt with the matter have collected highly incriminating testimonies from the family members of those children. These families’ accounts lead to the clear conclusion that their children, who were reported dead, actually remained alive and were taken for adoption. One account comes from a mother who persisted in looking for her child and finally located him in a locked room in a different hospital. Many similar testimonies have been collected by those organizations. Still, it isn’t clear that the documents in the state archives will be of any help in locating those children. A historian who examined some of the documents claims that the archives contain a plethora of information, but there are no documents that the establishment may have wished to hide from the public. Dr. Dov Levitan, who investigated the affair, made a similar statement: “Anyone whose hopes have been raised by the impending release of the documents from the state archives is bound to be disappointed.”

Levitan is certain that children were indeed kidnapped and placed in adoptive families, but he also feels that no evidence of that will be found in the state archives. Naturally, his statements have angered the organizations that are working to have the files released.

A Prayer for Amona

The community of Amona was founded in 1995 in the region of Binyamin. Amona is the largest outpost in the Yehuda and Shomron area, and it suffers from constant harassment from the government. It is officially classified as an illegal outpost.

Ten years ago, after a conflict between Amona and the Supreme Court, the court ordered a number of buildings in Amona destroyed. The violent evacuation and demolitions led to bitter complaints, and relations between the settlers and the authorities eroded almost to the point of a complete disconnect. Two years ago, after another appeal was made to the Supreme Court for the entire community to be razed, the government announced that Amona had been built illegally on private land, and it is unclear if there is any way to validate its construction retroactively. As a result, the Supreme Court ruled that the government is obligated to destroy the entire settlement. The state was given two years to organize the residents and prepare them to transfer to a different community. Those two years have now come to an end, and we have seen that the enemies of Amona are not merely the police, the army, the attorney general’s office, and the Supreme Court – but also the state itself.

This week, a passage titled “Tefillah L’Amona” was distributed in shuls. (It may be based on “Tefillah L’Ani,” which was essentially the “theme song” of the political right during the Disengagement.) “The community of Amona in Binyamin is in danger of being destroyed, and all its residents evicted, before Chanukah 5777,” said a brief explanatory comment accompanying the tefillah. “This tefillah was composed by Rav Yair Frank, the rov of the settlement, to be said every day for the community to be saved, with siyata diShmaya.” The distributors suggested incorporating the tefillah at the end of the brachah of “shomei’a tefillah.”

Here is an excerpt from the tefillah: “Answer us, He Who created the world with the attribute of mercy, and Who chose His nation Yisroel to make His strength and the glory of His honor known. He Who listens to prayers, protect and save the settlement of Amona and all the settlements of Your nation Yisroel, in the land that You swore to give to our forefathers, from all sorts of destroyers and all sorts of misfortune. Annul the intentions of our enemies and thwart the counsel of our foes; remove all enemies and evildoers from us, and do not allow our inheritance to be shamed.”

Reading these words, I could not help but be struck by a thought: While the appeal against Amona was filed by a hostile left-wing organization, and there is some background involvement of the Palestinians who claim ownership of the land, it was the state itself that responded to the court. Furthermore, it was the Supreme Court of Israel that made the decision to destroy the settlement, and the destruction is to be carried out by the soldiers and police officers of the country. How could the people of Amona write such words about them?

The Test-Makers Are Chastened

Here is another story from the Knesset, which illustrates the power of a parliamentary query. Earlier this year, the Tax Authority administered a test to Bais Yaakov students in Yerushalayim who were training to work as tax professionals. One of the five questions on the test was: “How much does [a certain American the singer] Rachel* (name changed) need to pay in taxes if she earned 20,000 dollars?” Out of the hundreds of girls who took the test, none of them knew that the question was referring to a real singer, who lives outside Israel. One girl deduced that she was a foreign resident from the fact that the sum was listed in dollars, and thereby succeeded in making the correct calculations. The hundreds of other chareidi test-takers failed to come up with the correct answer, since they based their calculations on the tax rates for Israeli residents. The incident begged the question: Why should these chareidi girls have been expected to know that this particular singer actually exists?

The incident came to the attention of MK Yigal Guetta, who was duly outraged. The examination, he insisted, was meant to be a test of the girls’ knowledge of tax regulations; what was the purpose of including a trick question of this nature? Furthermore, how could any chareidi girl be expected to know that Rachel is a real person, and that she is legally defined as a foreign resident? Guetta demanded either that the question be disregarded entirely, or that all the girls who took the test be given credit for an answer reflecting the correct amount of tax for an Israeli resident. In addition, he insisted that future tests be written with the cultural backgrounds of the test takers in mind.

This week, Guetta received a response from Yitzchak Cohen, his fellow Shas party member and the deputy minister of finance. “Your argument is correct,” Cohen wrote. “The testing staff has been instructed to accept both answers, and a lesson has been learned for the future.”

With a simple parliamentary query that received no media attention, Guetta managed to benefit 330 Bais Yaakov students in Yerushalayim, who were credited for an answer on the test that would otherwise have been marked incorrect.

Dire Predictions for the National Insurance Institute

My interest was piqued by a recent parliamentary query in the Knesset, which was titled, “The National Insurance Institute on the Road to Bankruptcy.” The National Insurance Institute, known in Hebrew as “Bituach Leumi,” is the government body in the State of Israel that pays stipends to the disabled, the infirm, the elderly, the poor, and kollel yungeleit. The institute is undoubtedly quite wealthy, since it takes a percentage of the paycheck of every employee in the state. Nor is it a philanthropic institute; although it gives money to certain citizens, that is after it has taken hefty sums from them for decades.

The query, which was submitted by Mickey Levi of the Yesh Atid party, was based on a report from the State Comptroller, Justice Yosef Shapira. The government’s response was delivered by Minister of Welfare Chaim Katz and revealed just how much money the National Insurance Institute has in its coffers. Katz began his remarks by noting that the average life expectancy is rising, and this fact may gradually lead to the depletion of the institute’s reserves of funding. In the government’s eyes, the elderly are merely a population that consumes resources but produces nothing, as opposed to the employed, who earn money and pay taxes to Bituach Leumi.

Still, Katz was asked, how much money does the institute have today, before the projected collapse? The Minister of Welfare replied, “Today, the institute has a surplus of about 190 billion shekels. The projections are that in about 20 to 22 years, the stipends will exceed the institute’s receipts, and the surplus will be depleted.”

“In 22 years?” Mickey Levi repeated.

“Twenty-two to thirty years,” Katz said.

Does this make any sense to you? In another 22 to 30 years, Bituach Leumi’s surplus of funds will be depleted. Because of this, the state comptroller is alarmed and the institute is rejecting proposed laws that are intended to benefit the country’s needy now, since those laws cost money and it needs to maintain its surplus of funds in order to benefit the poor in 2038. But what about the people who are poor now?

“Every week, the members of the Knesset propose new laws without regard for the cost to Bituach Leumi,” Katz went on. “They see nothing wrong with spending another 100 million or 200 million shekels on every one of those laws.”

“Are you telling us not to make those proposals?” asked Nurit Koren, who was chairing the sitting.

“I am saying to do it slowly and gradually,” the minister replied. “I am saying that we should keep our eyes open and not do anything rash. Recently, in the budget legislation passed for 2015 and 2016, a number of steps were taken to limit the actuarial deficit and increase the financial stability of Bituach Leumi. These measures have postponed the date when the institute’s reserves are expected to be depleted by six years.”

For all the government’s pretenses of maintaining a welfare policy and providing for the citizens’ needs through Bituach Leumi, it seems to me that this exchange is something out of Chelm…

Giving Sephardim a Voice

Last Thursday, the Bitton Commission sent a set of recommendations to the Minister of Education, which may yet become the subject of controversy. Erez Bitton is a blind poet with a close connection to tradition, who was asked to formulate recommendations for changes in the state’s educational programming. As a person of Sephardic descent, he was chosen to lead the commission, since the public educational system has been accused of ignoring the contributions and rich legacy of Sephardic Jewry.

Bitton rose to the challenge, offering a wide variety of recommendations for changes to the country’s educational programs and textbooks. In subjects such as history, literature, civics, and Eretz Yisroel, he recommended updating the curricula with information on the history of the Jews in Spain and in eastern countries, and with the study of their creative works. He suggested arranging trips for students to the Balkan lands, to Spain, and to Morocco in order to educate the students about the heritage of Jews whose families hail from those countries. He proposed establishing Sephardic research centers in universities and hiring new academic faculties to study the history of Sephardic Jewry. He also proposed establishing museums dedicated to various Sephardic communities, and commemorating significant Sephardic cultural figures by using their names for schools, streets, and the like.

The Minister of Education accepted Bitton’s ideas and announced, “I, Naftali Bennett, grew up in an Ashkenazic home, and I was not exposed in school to the wondrous culture of Sephardic Jewry. I was never exposed to the incredible contribution made by Sephardic Jews to our country and our people. In Judaism, loving other Jews is a mitzvah whose importance surpasses that of many other mitzvos. I would like to institute a change, not only for the sake of Sephardic Jews, but also for the sake of my own children.”

In response, Bitton said, “I am excited to open a window for our students into a world of beauty that they haven’t yet encountered. The commission on which I served turned out to be an unexpected adventure, in which I encountered 17 different communities whose voices have been silenced in Israeli society, communities that are begging for their identities to be expressed in the context of our school system.”

My prediction is that this will yet evolve into a controversy. From my knowledge of the personalities involved in these issues, I predict that this subject will not be allowed to pass quietly. There are some people who will be opposed to teaching children to visit the graves of tzaddikim. At the same time, there will be those from our own ranks who will assert that Bitton’s proposals do not reflect the true legacy of Sephardic Jewry.

No Enforcement Against Kashrus Fraud

My regular readers are all well aware of my frequent protests against forged hechsheirim. In Eretz Yisroel, I have been writing about the subject for many years. It pains me that the Chief Rabbinate settles for imposing fines on the purveyors of false hechsheirim, instead of pressing criminal charges against them. The monetary fines that they impose do not help prevent future acts of forgery, and the epidemic is simply spreading.

I have recently learned that the situation is even worse than I imagined. Anyone who receives a fine is permitted to request a court hearing on the subject, and virtually all the perpetrators take advantage of this right, knowing well that the prosecution does not view such cases as being worth even a modicum of effort. This week, it was reported in a news article that the Rabbinate has handed out thousands of fines over the past few years, and the offenders have avoided paying them. Official statistics show that over 1,000 business owners sought to have their fines adjudicated in court over the past 16 years, but few of the cases were actually heard. The reason for this failure, according to official sources, is that the prosecution is suffering from a heavy backlog of work. The result has been that hundreds of fines were never paid, and since the cases were not brought to court, the statute of limitations ultimately led to the fines being discarded altogether.

The same article went on to add that this is not a new phenomenon, and that the state comptroller has been criticizing the Rabbinate and the Ministry of Justice since 2008 for their lackadaisical handling of this subject. The comptroller noted that kashrus counterfeiters appeared to be deliberately asking for court hearings with the knowledge that their fines would ultimately be cancelled, and he added that the situation would lead to the offenders being able to continue their crimes with impunity. Eight years after he made those comments, the situation has not improved in the slightest. The forgeries are continuing, the fines are still being handed out by the Rabbinate, and the prosecution is continuing to ignore the situation. The Rabbinate announced in response that it is preparing to issue a tender for private attorneys to work as criminal prosecutors. The Ministry of Justice made a similar announcement as well.

Visiting a Mother

The following story is rather sad. This past Thursday, my son’s shiur gimmel class in yeshiva was given the weekend off. The talmidim had just completed a month of superhuman efforts to review the masechta the yeshiva has been learning, in preparation for their entrance exams for yeshiva gedolah. Some of these boys have been learning for 14 hours a day; some of them haven’t even seen their own beds for nights on end. I know of three boys who spent an entire Shabbos learning together, even during the nighttime hours, taking a break only to daven and eat. The tension in advance of the tests for yeshiva gedolah was crushing, and even now, some of the bochurim have yet to receive positive responses.

After the tests ended, the administration decided that the bochurim needed a short respite from their intensive schedule, and they were dismissed from yeshiva on Thursday evening. One of the boys, a highly refined young tzaddik, asked a friend, who lives near the yeshiva in Givat Shaul, to loan him his electric bicycle for a couple of hours.

“Why? To give you a break from the pressure?” his friend asked.

“No. I need to go visit my mother.”

“You’re going to go home and then come back?”

“No. I’m going to visit my mother and then return,” he replied.

Despite his heartfelt pleas, the boy hadn’t been accepted to the yeshiva where he had wished to gain admittance. He wasn’t bright enough for them, and he also wore beige shoes that he had received as a gift from his grandmother in America. For those reasons, he had been rejected. The boy was devastated; he felt as if his entire world had been destroyed. “I am going to go cry to my mother,” he repeated. “Maybe she will evoke Hashem’s mercy for me. I always go to her when things are hard for me,” he added haltingly.

Two hours later, the boy returned from his mother’s grave on Har Hamenuchos, his face red from weeping. He returned the bicycle to his friend and proceeded to make his way home – to spend Shabbos with his father.
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Chukas or Korach?

One last story, this one on a humorous note: When I received an invitation to Simcha Sharabi’s wedding, I was both pleased and somewhat saddened. Simcha, a charming young man who clearly has the potential for greatness, used to learn in Yeshivas Ner Moshe in Givat Shaul, which is a yeshiva for American bochurim. Our neighborhood is truly blessed to be home to these bochurim, who add a good deal of kedushah and good spirits to our surroundings.

When Simcha Sharabi left Yerushalayim and Ner Moshe to learn at Bais Medrash Govoah in Lakewood, his peers in the yeshiva were saddened by his departure, as were many of his friends in the neighborhood. Simcha, though, remained his usual happy self. A year went by, and last week I received an invitation to his wedding, which was to be held at Ateres Chana Hall in Lakewood.

I was overjoyed to learn that Simcha was getting married, but I was distressed by a simple error in the invitation, which claimed that the wedding would take place on “the first day of the week of Parshas Korach, on the evening of the 27th of Sivan, 5776.” The 27th of Sivan, I knew, was the day after the Shabbos of Parshas Korach. Couldn’t someone have checked the invitations before they were printed?

“Wonderful news,” I told Simcha when I called to congratulate him, “but there is a mistake in your invitation. It’s supposed to say ‘Parshas Chukas,’ not ‘Parshas Korach.’”

Simcha laughed. “That may be true for you, my friend, but here in America it is still Korach!”